During her recent visit to Egypt, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice would have profited from a short visit to the bookstore of the American University in Cairo, where she could have purchased the extraordinary memoirs of “The Last Khedive of Egypt Abbas Hilmi II, which recently went on sale.
Abbas Hilmi succeeded his father as nominal ruler of Egypt in 1892, only to be deposed by the British upon the outbreak of World War I in 1914. His memoir details his constant conflict with Egypt’s British overlords who, first in Egypt and later in Iraq and Palestine, championed a long, often bloody era of costly intervention, devising policies for administration and military reform aimed at preventing a unified challenge to its policies and preserving Britain’s interests.
For the Bush administration this long and troubled history of the region, and in particular the story of the West’s misadventures there, is an empty vessel that neither instructs nor cautions. Washington’s absolute and stunning obliviousness to the past, its lack of curiosity about the present, what Abbas Hilmi, in reference to the British occupation of Egypt eloquently described as “this dark abyss of incomprehension, is breathtaking. Policy is not made in a vacuum so much as in a stiff-necked straightjacket undermined by the administration’s own shortcomings. Yet the lessons Abbas Hilmi learned more than a century ago from foreigners who neither respected nor feared him still ring true. “It is not surprising, he observed, “that a great power can afford the indulgence of having grand designs without having a general plan, but can conduct its policies on a day to day basis and can thrive politically through stubbornness and will and sometimes act outside accepted diplomatic practice.
It was in Cairo one year ago that Rice declared the Bush administration’s grand design for the Middle East–a revolutionary intent to destroy the mold of Arab governments that had been forged in the century-long conflict between the West, hereditary rulers, and home-grown nationalists. “For 60 years, my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region here in the Middle East, and we achieved neither. Now, we are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people.
Rice was not the first Western leader to articulate such noble and seemingly disinterested sentiments. She could even be forgiven for not realizing that she was rejecting an outcome, not a policy. In Cairo, Rice, in words that would have made Abbas Hilmi and generations of Arabs after him wince with pained recognition, put the region on notice that Washington had tired of the Arab “old guard and now was ready for a new method of picking local winners better able to stabilize Arab societies. She called this new method democracy.
At the United Nations last month, President George W. Bush reaffirmed Rice’s pledge. The stability of the post-war era, the policies that generations of American leaders, including his father, had pursued, was a “mirage. In fact, Bush declared, these policies made the Middle East “a breeding ground for extremism. Democracy, he insisted, presented an alternative to the voices of despair that counseled violence, terror, and martyrdom as the most assured route to an escape from misery and loss of dignity.
Picking winners is a fool’s errand. In Palestine, the Bush administration was surprised by the scale of the victory of Hamas in elections earlier this year. It applauded the method -democracy – but not the outcome, a government lead by the very forces the US sees as its most implacable regional enemy. In response, the US has led a campaign to undermine the new Palestinian administration. Israel has supported this policy, which aims to effect a “soft coup against the Islamists by withholding funds belonging to the Palestinian Authority, and reinforcing an already draconian policy of restrictions on movement into and out of the Gaza Strip and within the West Bank. “Clearly, noted Rice in Saudi Arabia on October 3, “[Hamas] cannot govern in a circumstance in which they cannot represent a responsible government before the international system.
In her visit to the region earlier this month, the Israeli daily Haaretz reported that Rice told her Israeli counterpart that “the economic boycott on the Hamas-led Palestinian government is effective and in the international community will continue to maintain the boycott.
How does the Bush administration measure “effectiveness ? What index is used to determine that forcing Palestinians to reconsider their election of Islamists is succeeding? The World Bank, in an unusual departure from its antiseptic prose, reported in September that “overall [Palestinian] economic performance over the last fifteen years has been dismal. The West Bank and Gaza Strip economy “reveals a progressive deindustrialization. It concluded, the “prospects for economic revival are doomed to failure without considerable relaxation of the Israeli security regime.
The UN reports that Gaza’s fishermen have been prevented from access to the sea since June 25. A strike of health workers, unpaid since March because of the success of the boycott, has resulted in the majority of West Bank hospitals stopping most medical interventions. Teachers, too, are on strike. Upwards of 80 percent of schools have been closed for weeks. Gaza is closed to the outside world except for occasional shipments of humanitarian aid. Poverty is now reported among more than one half of Gaza’s families.
It is certainly true, as Rice acknowledged, that “it is a great sadness that during Ramadan that [many] Palestinians are deprived of basic needs. It is also true that the US can play a role in “making possible a life for the Palestinian people that is not subject to the kind of daily humiliations that we know have been associated with the occupation. Yet the misery of Palestinians is a manufactured crisis, championed by the Bush administration as an effective response to the Islamist victory.
Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, was at her side when Rice made these remarks. In contrast to the Islamists, Abbas supports the “international norms governing US policy towards Palestine and Hamas. Rice noted her “great admiration for the Palestinian leader’s role. Her comments came after Abbas said talks with Hamas on forming a national unity government had collapsed.
What distinguishes the Bush administration from its predecessors is not its stated preference for reform and democratization of the Arab world, or its intolerance of such methods when the results are not to its liking. What sets the administration apart is its cavalier willingness to destroy existing governing systems, not only in Iraq, Palestine, and perhaps even Lebanon. The misery and a lack of dignity among Arabs that Bush highlighted have increased on its watch. “Apres moi, le deluge is its legacy.
Geoffrey Aronson is director of the Foundation for Middle East Peace in Washington. This commentary was written for THE DAILY STAR.